Agricultural information services face major challenges in achieving their goals of making sure that farmers can find the precise information they need, when they need it, and in forms which they can understand. For the hundreds of millions of farmers who regularly seek new information to improve productivity and overcome hunger and poverty, the solution, as I see it, is to develop large, integrated networks that will connect the diverse sources of information to each other, and to farmers, through ICTs.
The strategy and framework for developing such networks already exist for Africa in the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), in which the importance of ICTs in the collation and dissemination of agricultural information is clearly stated. The prospect for building effective agricultural information networks is underpinned by the collective commitment of African governments to investing 10% of their national budgets to developing agriculture.
Some ACP countries are already building national information services. But to be fully effective, these networks have to be linked across continents to provide access to global sources of information. One way to do this, and improve accessibility for farmers, is to develop centres of knowledge sited strategically in each country, according to the distribution of farming communities and their differing needs.
Farmers could visit these centres at anytime to have their questions answered. The centre would connect them by phone or PC to human or electronic moderators who would redirect their questions. The questions could go to databases, to agricultural advisors qualified in the relevant subject, or to other farmers who have coped successfully with the same problem. The answer could be provided through any appropriate media, e.g. print, electronic databases, the internet, video, audio files, or through web 2.0 tools such as Facebook, twitter, YouTube, etc.
The greatest advantage of these information centres would be that they would not have to attempt the impossible task of being a single source of all information for all farmers. They would connect farmers to authoritative sources; questions on viral diseases would be directed to veterinary or plant virologists, for example, while questions on insect pests would be referred to an entomologist. These specialists could be accessed wherever they are, including at the fifteen international agricultural research centers (IARCs) that have been collecting pertinent information on agriculture in developing regions since the 1970s.
The development of effective information networks would require a lot of coordination between agricultural advisers, scientists, other development specialists and the private sector. Companies such as Nokia, Vodaphone, and Zain, that already have large networks, could do more to make information available to farmers. They will be essential to the development of electronic agricultural advisory services, but they would also benefit by getting access to expanding markets in which to sell their products. They, in turn, could then pay for social or impact investments to develop the information infrastructure and software that would be needed to link the centres and create the information networks.
The agricultural advisory services would also have a vital role in contextualizing the information content that would be conveyed on the networks so that it will of most use to the end users. The public and private research centres in universities and agricultural research institutes would have a major responsibility to generate useful and reliable information content.
Through the Regional Agricultural Information and Learning System (RAILS) and other initiatives, FARA is trying to promote the broader process of information exchange, and encourage discussion between scientists, extension workers, policy makers, NGOs and farmers. We, and several organizations in other ACP countries, are already working to develop agricultural information networks that meet the specific needs of farmers. Our efforts are still relatively small-scale, but we are determined to expand our services in the coming years. We will need a lot of support, however, and I think that is most likely to come from the commercial sector.
Farmers already know a lot about their production systems so their questions are usually very specific, related to their particular crop grown on a particular type of soil under particular climate conditions. And it will take a focused, coordinated effort by governments, businesses, NGOs and farmers to develop the necessary systems. We still have a long way to go, but I believe we have a good beginning already.